By: Judy McDaniel, RN, MSN, Program Coordinator for Educational Initiatives at Nurse.com
I don’t know when I decided I wanted to become a nurse; my family says it’s all I ever wanted to be. But how I became a nurse was not the typical course you would expect. I was only 17 when I started nursing school. I had never been a patient; being a candy striper was my only experience in a hospital. Ready to work as a nurse I was not. This was the path for the majority of nurses in the 1980s.
I am an overachiever (most nurses are), so the first year in nursing school was easy. I did well although I struggled with time management, prioritization, and knew nothing about critical thinking. At the ripe old age of almost 19, I thought I was ready to talk with physicians as peers, tell patients that I understood what they were going through, and sit and empathize with someone who had lost a loved one. It was during the first semester of my last year that I realized I wanted to do more than the tasks typically associated with nursing. I wanted to care, attend to and nurture others. My goals and the reality of nursing were not the same, so I did not finish school.
Fast-forward four years — I was older, had more experience and a stronger drive to fulfill my dream of becoming a nurse. No longer did I struggle with time management, or lack empathy to help someone through a stressful situation. I went back to the same nursing program and graduated nursing school in 1982; earned a BS in 1994; and an MSN in 2007. I have also taken countless hours of continuing education courses, so you could say I am a life-long learner.
Learning is always possible — regardless of your age. Today the average age of a nursing student is 43. I read one interview of a 47-year-old male nursing student (talk about non-traditional student), who made some good points: 1. Non-traditional students bring their life experiences to nursing, which help with critical thinking and decision-making abilities. 2. They are closer in age to the current workforce, which helps them assimilate into the nursing unit. Many older students are going into nursing as a second career, so they also bring their professional experience into healthcare. We already know that many other professions have good ideas that nursing has adopted, such as crew resource management – TEAM STEPPS.
Even though I am a late baby-boomer, I still have many good years to work at the bedside and in other areas of nursing, such as education. I currently help nurses by working to provide quality continuing education for those who are looking to change their career to nursing. They can find information about many new areas in nursing such as risk management, informatics and professional development. I also train new nurses in simulation to help them transition into the hospital setting, and it has helped to keep them engaged and has reduced stress. With all the changes that are happening in healthcare today, non-traditional students can help transition these changes into practice.
Are there challenges to starting nursing school at a non-traditional age? Absolutely. Trying to juggle family, home, work and school all at once was incredibly challenging as a traditional student. I remember wondering how the non-traditional student managed all they had because I struggled just to care for myself and complete my schoolwork. But as Laurie Round, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing executive at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill., said, “These people are choosing nursing while raising a family and working at the same time and that shows perseverance, commitment and discipline.”
So if you are a baby boomer or Gen X, there’s a place in nursing for you. Your past work experience, dedication and passion are all needed resources within the healthcare arena. As Uncle Sam once said, “We Want You!”
Tell us how you became a nurse in the comments box.